Is SA Chenin Blanc really that good?

By , 10 March 2011



I’m still waiting for my April issue of Decanter to arrive in the letter box, but a recent posting on A Word from the Herd, the Fairview Wine blog alerted me to a tasting report in the UK magazine that is going to upset many local Chenin Blanc producers. Out of 155 wines tasted, Fairview’s relatively modest offering La Capra 2010 was the only example to be rated 5 Stars while the panel apparently was generally underwhelmed: “Aside from a small selection of wines, the majority were average and not fitting to be positioned as a calling card for the country,” was the sentiment of the Decanter panel according to the Fairview blogger. The generally highly regarded Ken Forrester Wines The FMC 2009 rated 2 Stars, defined as “Fair” by Decanter.

Cees van Casteren

Cees van Casteren

News of the Decanter tasting provided an interesting backdrop to another tasting held yesterday and convened by Dutch wine journalist and educator Cees van Casteren, who is busy exploring the potential of Chenin Blanc to be South Africa’s signature wine as the subject of the dissertation required for him to gain qualification as a Master of Wine.

Van Casteren’s departure point is that a wine category must at least be distinctive feature of a national wine industry (as Malbec is to Argentina and Sauvignon Blanc to New Zealand) if not unique to that industry (Carmenere to Chile, Grüner Veltliner to Austria). Clearly, Chenin Blanc is not unique to South Africa (France’s Loire is renowned for the variety) but it just might be distinctive of South Africa, Van Casteren having proposed the requirement that the best local examples “must at least be in the same quality league of other countries”.

Hence a gathering of local producers (Ken Forrester, Teddy Hall and Bruwer Raats) as well as commentators to review a line-up of 13 wines, the first part of the exercise being simply to see if tasters could tell the Loire examples from the local ones and then to score them using the 100-point system.

There were eight South African and five Loire wines, of which I confused only two, thinking that the Cederberg Five Generations 2009 might be an austere Savennières and the Rijk’s Reserve 2007 an opulent Vouvray.

Does SA stack up? Three of my top four wines were from the Loire but then so were my bottom two. While Van Casteren revealed upfront that all of the wines were considered premium examples hence making excessively low scoring difficult, it would’ve have taken a Decanter panel member in a particularly bad mood not to have got excited by the overall quality.

What makes South Africa different from the Loire? For me, the local wines have a sun-kissed abundance of fruit that the French wines typically do not. In addition, the acidities on local wines are either harsher and more abrasive as a result of added tartaric or a little flabby as a result of winemakers foregoing added acidity and natural being insufficient. The French wines meanwhile tend to be high in natural malic acid, which is softer and smoother but still refreshing.

Other factors: South African soils typically have low pH values requiring the addition of huge amounts of lime during vineyard preparation; the Loire has soils that are chalky and hence very alkaline. It is more difficult to see South African wines as being representative of place as they typically come from contract vineyards, a problem exacerbated by winemakers inclined to move from cellar to cellar while in the Loire, vineyards are producer-owned and winemaker tenure is more stable.

That said, the stylistic gap between local and Loire is narrow and getting narrower all the time. Terroir is being overwhelmed by winemaker intervention and the leveling effects of climate change. The Loire provides the standard by which South African Chenin Blanc is measured, necessarily so as the Loire is the more established region but to insist that it provides the only legitimate or most authentic expression of Chenin Blanc is dangerously prejudicial.

The line-up and how I scored them:

Domaine de Bellivière Les Rosiers Jasnières 2008
Rijk’s Reserve 2007

Foreau Domaine de Clos Naudin Sec Vouvray 2007
François Chidaine Les Bournais Montlouis sur Loire 2008

Jean Daneel 2009
Perdeberg Rex Equus 2008

Bellingham The Bernard Series Old Vine 2009
Cederberg Five Generations 2009

Ken Forrester The FMC 2009
Kleine Zalze Cellar Selection Bush Vines 2010
Rudera De Tradisie 2009

Domaine du Collier Saumur Blanc 2006

Clos du Papillon Savennières 2006


3 comment(s)

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    Ryan Mostert | 25 April 2011

    I think the point that Christian raises about acidity is an important one. The malic acid content of a Loire Chenin is quite fundamental to organoleptic properties and it’s percieved quality, I am of the opinion that wines whose acid structure has been created with added tartaric acid will find it very difficult to match the finesse of Loire Chenin and (Loire Chenin aside) posses the quality of a true fine wine. Better farming practices can remedy the problem of insufficient acidity, a biodynamic farm in the Polkadraai hills is harvesting grapes with perfect natural acidity levels and making a beautifully balanced Chenin Blanc off the 37 year old vines (native yeast, barrel fermented, nothing added but SO2). Similar to what Colyn has experienced, time after time in the tasting room we have guests both local and foreign enjoying the Chenin more than the Sauvignon and to comment on what Hennie said I think and hope it will only be a matter of time until more consumers both local and foreign start to experience the amazing complex and serious Chenins that are being produced. Lets just hope it doesn’t take too long for this category to become more popular or we may find producers cannot sustain these serious Chenins made with expensive oak off even more expensive old vines.

    Hennie @ Batonage | 10 March 2011

    @colyn – Agree that Chenin is great, and not only from Stellenbosch, Swartland but also Robertson.  I basically agree with everything you say, except that you think it will replace Sauvignon Blanc.  I think its been better than Sauvignon Blanc for a long time, but where SB beats it hands down is on price point.  Decent Chenin will always have the wood component, and that makes it pricier.  I wish consumers would wake up and realise just how great wooded Chenin is. 

    Colyn Truter | 10 March 2011

    Robertson has some of the highest concentraton of lime and calcium rich soils in SA…also a BIG factor why so many racehorse studs in the valley produce some amazing horses because they dont have to give alternative feeding…in fact there is a lime factory just outside Robertson. You will also meet a ton of people drinking Vouvray without even knowing it is Chenin Blanc. The problem in SA is that the consumers dont understand the richer, fuller style of Chenin and also think of it as an inferior wine to Chard and SauvBlanc which it isnt. Most panels in SA also chase the fruity, almost ‘watered down’ style of Chenin because that is what sells in the market…profiling?? We have a Chenin made from 64 year old wine, very different from these fruit boms, but sells extremely well in the USA and Holland. The very positive aspect is that more winemakers pay attention to Chenin and quality of it…this will definitely help and i think that Chenin will challenge SauvBlanc in the next 5 years as the Top White Wines in SA???

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